Betta Fish & Dropsy: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Name: Fish Dropsy
Scientific Name: Depends on what caused it. It’s a secondary symptom
Cause: Usually caused by a virus, bacterial infection or parasite
Visual Betta Symptoms: Extreme body swelling/bloat in stomach and pineconing of scales
Behavioral Betta Symptoms: Lack of appetite, lethargic, bottom-dwelling, darting to surface for oxygen, laying on their side
Treatment: Antibiotics like Kanamycin Sulfate, or Maracyn II
Betta Fish Dropsy Outlook: Usually fatal

Dropsy in betta fish is not a disease itself, but rather a secondary symptom of another problem going on internally. Think of this like when you have an infected cut, and a secondary symptom of the cut can be warm skin or swelling surrounding the cut.

Chances for survival are more common with less severe internal causes and immediate treatment. The sooner you notice the pinecone-like appearance or swelling, the better the odds are for successful treatment. The survival rate for betta fish with dropsy is low.

Dropsy Causes

Dropsy is linked to kidney failure, poor diet, bad osmoregulation, or other internal infections (e.g. liver). It is caused by internal swelling from fluid building up and placing pressure against the body and abdominal area. Aging bettas are also more prone to kidney failure and other viral bacterial and parasitic infections, which increases their risk for dropsy.

High bio-loads from too many tank mates or from too small of an ecosystem can cause harmful infections and bacteria to manifest rapidly. Live food and proteins not recommended for betta fish consumption can also cause digestive issues and kidney failure. Read more on proper betta fish food and feeding here.

Dropsy Symptoms

The iconic symptom of dropsy is the visual bloat and swelling of the stomach which causes a betta’s scales to flare out and present a pinecone appearance. This is different than overfeeding and constipation bloat. Dropsy is easily identified by looking down on your betta from above. Other symptoms include virtually non-existent appetites, extreme lethargy, darting to the surface and gasping for air, and color loss.

Dropsy Treatment

Dropsy is usually fatal in advanced stages (e.g. extreme bloating). Identifying it early will increase your chances for successful treatment. Follow the instructions below to treat your betta fish for dropsy:

  1. Perform a 25% water change.
  2. Prepare a quarantine or hospital tank.
  3. Add a heater with a built in thermostat and keep it at around 78 degrees fahrenheit.
  4. Keep the water level lower than normal to make it easy for your betta to surface for oxygen.
  5. Add an air stone with air pump to oxygenate the tank’s water to help with recovery.
  6. Add aquarium salt (not table salt!) to the hospital tank at a rate of 0.5 teaspoons per gallon to help reduce swelling and release built up fluids.
  7. Always acclimate your betta fish to the hospital tank.
  8. Administer the antibiotic according to its directions. If your betta fish is still eating you can soak the food in the antibiotic for faster efficacy. Otherwise, medicine like Kanamycin is absorbed by betta fish in the water too.
  9. Many antibiotics deplete dissolved oxygen levels and are potent which is why daily 25% water changes and an air bubbler are crucial during treatment.

Dropsy Medicine/Antibiotic

Note that you can administer treatment in a main tank if you don’t have live plants or tank mates. If you go this route, you will need to perform daily water changes because of medication levels, depleted oxygen, and nitrogen cycle disruptions. Therefore hospital tanks are recommended. Never pour hospital tank water back into your main aquarium.

Strong antibiotics can also affect kidneys and the liver and place additional stress on a betta. This is why even with treatment, it is very possible that your betta fish will not survive dropsy. You should certainly try to treat it and keep your betta comfortable during this time however. Some betta owners even take the route of euthanasia to stop dropsy suffering.

Prevention and Care

The good news is dropsy isn’t that common when a betta fish is properly cared for. Dropsy is more prevalent in glass bowls (2 gallons or less) and bad water conditions. I recommend a 5 gallon tank with a heater (78 degrees fahrenheit) and filter which will actually be easier to maintain water parameters in the long-run.

Reducing and preventing stressors will also keep your betta fish’s immune system healthy. This is their natural ability to resist and fight disease. Keep an eye on ammonia and nitrite and nitrate levels and use feeding times to inspect your betta fish for any signs of disease or abnormalities. If you have further questions about your betta fish and dropsy, please comment below or email us.

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